In 1876â€“80 Gladstone shifted popular liberalism towards emotional cru-
sades for humanitarian causes â€˜aboveâ€™ party politics. The Palmerstonians
within both the parliamentary party and the rank and file were distressed
by the GOMâ€™s apparent disregard of national interest. As an â€˜Independent
Liberal working man and one who loves his country better than
Mr Gladstone & partyâ€™ wrote to the Peopleâ€™s William, â€˜your speeches
have converted me and many of my Liberal friends to the Conservative
party, as we cannot but think that your foreign Policy is unsafeâ€™.3
However, whether or not foreign policy was â€˜unsafeâ€™ in Gladstoneâ€™s
hands, these people were mistaken if they feared that he was prepared
to pursue the politics of humanitarianism to the detriment of what
he regarded as the national interest. For, in the first place, as Shannon
has argued, Gladstoneâ€™s charismatic campaigning was merely â€˜limited-
application demagogyâ€™, in the sense that, once he had achieved the
â€˜A Scotchmanâ€™ to Gladstone, 5 Jan. 1878, Glynneâ€“Gladstone Papers, 702.
â€˜The Liberal party and its leadersâ€™, The Congregationalist, Apr. 1886, 305.
Letter dated 23 Mar. 1880, in Glynneâ€“Gladstone Papers, 703.
354 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
central object of a great crusade, the GOM expected to be able to revert to
his â€˜Peelite personaâ€™.4 Second, as Matthew has written, â€˜Gladstone was,
outside free trade, no Cobdenite.â€™ While Cobden himself always opposed
intervention, Gladstone â€˜saw [it] as a natural part of the maintenance of
the civilized order of the world . . . Every Cabinet he had sat in since 1843
had dispatched a military expedition.â€™5 In fact as early as 1862 John
Bright had noted that â€˜Gladstone with his professions of piety, [always
found] some way of reconciling his conscience to a retention of office and
the justification of crimes that [seemed] to carry us back to an age of
barbarism.â€™6 In any case, the GOMâ€™s philosophy of international relations
implied almost universal intervention â€“ provided not only that it was
sanctioned by either the Concert of Europe or some overriding
Christian imperative, but also (and crucially) that it was consistent with
British interest, as perceived from the Treasuryâ€™s point of view.
Such a philosophy was based on a version of inter-nationalism that
ascribed to nation-states a leading role in human progress. In pursuit of
this vision, far from being idealistic, Gladstone was essentially a pragma-
tist, as illustrated by his ruthless 1882 invasion of Egypt â€“ where British
economic and strategic interests were at stake. By contrast, he opposed
imperialism in Sudan and Uganda â€“ where Britain only had vague and
intangible reasons for intervention, albeit linked to lofty aims such as the
suppression of the slave trade and the protection of a Christian minority
against a possible Islamic backlash.7 He even refused to discontinue the
opium trade from India to China in 1892, when lobbied by the Quakers â€“
who objected to the trade on moral and health grounds â€“ because he was
aware of its importance for the revenue of the Raj (and the profits of the
Indian mercantile bourgeoisie).8 Thus, while Bright had consistently
been a genuine critic of empire, and some of the Methodist leaders
became fervent advocates of high-minded imperialism,9 Gladstone him-
self was always an unreconstructed wielder of imperial power for â€˜con-
servativeâ€™ aims. And, although he was attacked as an â€˜anti-imperialistâ€™ in
the jingoistic climate of 1876â€“8, even his speeches to stop the Bulgarian
Shannon, Bulgarian agitation, 11.
Matthew, Gladstone 1875â€“1898, 123; cf. W. Hinde, Richard Cobden (1987), 202â€“3, 207â€“8,
John Bright to James White, Rochdale, 14 Nov. 1863, Bristol Univ. Library, National
Liberal Club Collection, P14814.
R. T. Harrison, Gladstoneâ€™s imperialism in Egypt (1995); A. Low, â€˜Public opinion and the
Uganda question, Octoberâ€“December 1892â€™, Uganda Journal, 18, 2 (1954), 81â€“100.
J. Y. Wong, Deadly dreams: opium and the Arrow War (1856â€“1860) with China (1998), 433.
J. L. Sturgis, John Bright and the empire (1969); G. Cuthbertson, â€˜Preaching imperalism:
Wesleyan methodism and the warâ€™, in Omissi and Thompson, The impact of the South
African war, 157â€“72.
Democracy and the politics of humanitarianism 355
atrocities contained the â€˜implicit reaffirmation of Britainâ€™s right to dictate
events in the eastern Mediterraneanâ€™. If such a claim was â€˜delivered with
the charisma of an Old Testament prophetâ€™, it was also â€˜calculated to
appeal to Britons, whatever their backgroundâ€™.10
The years 1876â€“9 saw â€˜the emotional apex of Victorian politicsâ€™,11 not
only because of the size of the crowds mobilized by Gladstoneâ€™s political
sermons, but also because of the nearly as large and certainly equally
emotional masses involved in the Jingo counterdemonstrations.12 The
politics of humanitarianism were not only influential, but also divisive.
Yet, as the Liberal triumph in the 1880 election suggested, Gladstone
could be justified in his belief that humanitarianism would be at least as
electorally viable as the politics of jingoism. In 1886 the new â€˜Democracyâ€™
was an unknown quantity. He tested its fibre with his spectacular pro-
posal to â€˜pacifyâ€™ Ireland by means of parliamentary self-government and
land purchase. Although his decision was not shaped by electoral calcu-
lation, he had reason to hope that the plan would attract substantial
support. After all, in 1881â€“5 many among his followers â€“ including the
Lib-lab MPs â€“ had made no secret of the fact that they perceived Ireland
as a legitimate target for the application of humanitarian imperatives,
drawing analogies between the latter and Bulgaria, Poland and other
countries â€˜rightly struggling to be freeâ€™. The unpopularity of coercion
among the British public and reports of the wanton cruelty and suffering
associated with the evictions of tenant farmers in Ireland contributed
towards establishing a close link between Home Rule and the politics of
These factors were certainly crucial in generating emotional and polit-
ical support for the cause in Britain â€“ especially among Dissenters, work-
ing-class radicals, Liberal women, and Scottish and Welsh revivalists.
Each of these groups â€˜appropriatedâ€™ Home Rule and turned its advocacy
into an opportunity for fostering its own specific agenda, including land
reform and devolution for both Scotland and Wales. The WLF exploited
the affinity between humanitarianism and emotionalism â€“ a supposedly
central feature of the feminine character â€“ to claim that women had a
special moral mission in the public sphere, namely to purge democracy of
selfishness and callous self-interest. However, the â€˜feminizationâ€™ of
Gladstonian politics reflected not so much â€“ and certainly not only â€“
WLF activism, but especially the broader, non-gendered humanitarian
Pottinger Saab, Reluctant icon, 94.
G. L. Goodman, â€˜The Liberal Unionist party, 1886â€“1895â€™, D.Phil. thesis, University of
Chicago, 1956, 7.
Pottinger Saab, Reluctant icon, 167â€“73.
356 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
campaigns which periodically mobilized all currents of radicalism in the
British Isles from 1876 to 1906.
Moreover, humanitarian rhetoric helped to disarm Gladstoneâ€™s left-
wing critics, like Keir Hardie, for whom â€˜internationalism . . . was a
central themeâ€™.13 Among the Lib-labs, it is remarkable that Home Rule
was prominent in the programmes not only of Benthamites like George
Howell, but also of more socially oriented radicals, such as the Mazzinian
Fred Maddison and Benjamin Pickard, the advocate of coal mine nation-
alization.14 On the whole in Britain, the left remained loyal to Gladstone
despite his old-fashioned views on social policy, and even those who had
supported Radical Unionism in 1886 gradually returned to the
Gladstonian fold over the next ten years. At the elections of 1892 the
working menâ€™s candidates â€“ both Liberal and Independent â€“ all stood on
platforms which invariably included Home Rule. Those who did not
(there were a few Toryâ€“labour candidates), failed to be elected.
Independent socialists were returned only if endorsed by the Liberals
and their ecclesiastical allies. Throughout the period 1894â€“1905 there
are examples of frustrated ILPers complaining of how â€˜Church . . .
Nonconformist conscience [and] . . . party caucuses . . . are arrayed
against us.â€™15 If they fought the caucus and tried to split the anti-
Unionist vote, they would attract the wrath of the Irish, as Keir Hardie
discovered to his cost in South-West Ham in 1894â€“5.16
By then Gladstone had retired and Home Rule was no longer an imme-
diate prospect. There was a general demand for the Liberals to move on
with their programme, and even the Irish Nationalists were prepared to
support the government in this. On the other hand, social radicalism,
supposedly the new touchstone, was a vague and divisive concern.
Rosebery, Gladstoneâ€™s immediate successor, had a chance of squaring
the circle by appeasing the left while simultaneously holding on to the
vote of the right through his social imperialist policies. Despite his anti-
Gladstonian rhetoric, his technique was essentially Gladstonian, as Hamer
has pointed out.17 When he failed, he blamed others, decrying â€˜program-
maticâ€™ politics, â€˜faddismâ€™ and disloyal colleagues, although, as Readman
has shown, at the 1895 election the Liberalsâ€™ main weakness was not lack of
ideas, but inadequate party organization. After Roseberyâ€™s resignation,
substantial numbers of Liberal MPs remained loyal to him.18 They
Morgan, Keir Hardie, 41.
Election addresses 1892, vol. I, in National Liberal Club Collection, f. 4a (Howell),
f. 54b (Maddison) and f. 51 (Pickard).
Ben Tillett, â€˜The lesson of Attercliffeâ€™, WT&E, 15 July 1894, 6.
Morgan, Keir Hardie, 79â€“80. 17 Hamer, Liberal politics, 248â€“9.
Matthew, Liberal Imperialists, 20â€“1; Stansky, Ambitions and strategies, chapter 2.
Democracy and the politics of humanitarianism 357
included most of the young generation and rising stars such as Asquith,
Haldane and Grey. Tired of Home Rule, they disapproved of Gladstoneâ€™s
endless revivalism and â€˜sop-throwingâ€™ to NLF â€˜faddismâ€™, and were
attracted by Roseberyâ€™s unconventional patriotism. They stood for a new
approach to Liberalism, based on pragmatism and â€˜national efficiencyâ€™.
The problem was that Roseberyâ€™s ideas and tactics further divided the
faithful within the SLA and the NLF and had limited mileage within the
country as a whole. On the one hand, as Davitt wrote to Blake, the Liberal
leaders â€˜were discovering that Home Rule had a far stronger hold upon the
abiding convictions of the Liberal rank and file than they had hitherto
believedâ€™.19 On the other hand, Rosebery could not really compete with
the Unionists in terms of imperialism and, anyway, it is not clear to what
extent people really cared about it, except as a sideshow and for as long as
it did not affect the income tax rate or interfere with the workmanâ€™s â€˜free
breakfast tableâ€™, that is the traditionally low duties on the necessities of
life.20 Moreover, his aspirations in terms of social reform were, so to speak,
ahead of working-class expectations, which focused on trade union rights,
self-help and free trade rather than on â€˜welfareâ€™. Thus, in electoral terms,
social radicalism proved little more than a fashionable diversion. It
affected only the elite in each of the parties â€“ including the ILP.
By contrast, there was evidence that the politics of humanitarianism
was still viable after 1895. While the Liberal Imperialists were annoyed by
â€˜the excessive degree to which the party had become a party of protestâ€™,21
a growing number of people and pressure groups in the country believed
that there was in fact much to protest about. In a two-party system
political success depends largely on the other sideâ€™s mistakes, and in the
period 1896â€“1903 the Unionist government provided ample scope and
opportunity for the revival of the opposition. Questions of foreign and
imperial policy and issues of broad humanitarian concern could be used
both to appeal to disaffected Liberal voters with little sympathy for the
cause of Home Rule, and to encourage the recovery of a degree of soli-
darity among the fractious Irish Nationalists. This was first indicated by
the protest surrounding the events of 1895â€“7: the Armenian and Cretan
massacres and the Jameson raid. In the aftermath of a largely spontaneous
agitation, by-elections showed a 5 per cent swing in favour of the Liberals.
Bearing in mind that in 1895 about sixty former Liberal seats were won by
the Unionists with a majority of 5 per cent or less,22 the potential and
significance of the protest are clear.
M. Davitt to E. Blake, 21 Oct. 1897, NLI, Blake Letters, 4681.
Porter, The absent-minded imperialists. 21 Matthew, Liberal Imperialists, 133.
Readman, â€˜1895 general electionâ€™, 486.
358 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
However, neither Rosebery nor Harcourt, nor, for that matter,
Campbell-Bannerman, was able to unify the anti-imperialist vote around
this or any other rallying cry. Astonishingly, as Taylor has pointed out, the
Radicals and Irish Nationalists, including Labouchere and Blake, failed
to exploit the Jameson fiasco to ruin and drive Chamberlain out of
politics.23 On the contrary, in September 1898 the Fashoda incident
indicated the extent to which the parliamentary party was divided over
foreign policy. Eventually, a concerted Liberal Imperialist attack on the
â€˜Little Englanderâ€™ Harcourt and Morley brought about the formerâ€™s
resignation as party leader.24 The opportunity to challenge jingoism
came again within months, when the government blundered into the
Second Boer War. As John Grigg has written, in the election of 1900
â€˜the Liberals lost because they were divided on the war, rather than
because some of them were opposed to itâ€™.25 The impression that the
Liberal Imperialists dominated the parliamentary party and could cause a
new and catastrophic split like the one of 1886 forced Campbell-
Bannerman to adopt a prudent and tolerant tactic. Soon, however, the
cost and consequences of the war exposed the Liberal Imperialists as an
isolated sect, rather than the party orthodoxy.
As in 1876, opposition to the war started not with the parliamentary
party, but with the radical press and peace movement â€“ such as the
International Arbitration League, dominated by artisans of the Lib-lab
type such as Tom Burt and Randal Cremer.26 However, soon the agita-
tion involved also most other radical working-class groups, including the
ILP and SDF. Although the Fabian Society supported the war, J. Ramsay
MacDonald opposed it.27 Keir Hardie denounced it as the â€˜murderâ€™ of
â€˜two freedom-cherishing Republicsâ€™ and described the Boer fighters as
â€˜serving humanity in the struggle against capitalist imperialismâ€™.28
Hobson thought that the time was ripe for â€˜an effective Labour partyâ€™ to
take off.29 It is highly significant that such an eminent social radical
considered that a party realignment in favour of independent Labour
could be brought about not by some collectivist crusade on undercon-
sumption or other such social reform issues, but by opposition to impe-
rialism. Indeed, as Gill has shown, the two were intimately
interconnected as part of what she brilliantly describes as â€˜the rise of
Taylor, Trouble makers, 108; J. Butler, The Liberal party and the Jameson raid (1968).
Matthew, Liberal Imperialists, 29â€“30. 25 Grigg, â€˜Lloyd Georgeâ€™, 16.
P. Laity, â€˜The British peace movementâ€™, in Omissi and Thompson, The impact of the
South African war, 143.
Davey, British pro-Boers, 126. 28 Ibid., 124â€“5.
Cited in J. Townshend, â€˜Introductionâ€™ to J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: a study (1988), 18.